Thursday, 1 February 2007

Death penalty could be debated

Death penalty could be debated

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Whether Nebraska's death penalty should be repealed appears headed for debate by state lawmakers for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee advanced to the full Legislature a bill (LB476) from Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha that would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole.

The full Legislature last debated such a measure in 1988.

Chambers, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, has introduced bills to repeal it every legislative term for more than 30 years.

Chambers attributed the vote Wednesday to the new makeup of the committee, partially caused by term limits.

"Their minds are open to the principle that an issue as important as this deserves to be debated by the full Legislature," Chambers said after the committee voted the bill out to the full Legislature. It is not yet known when the Legislature might debate the bill.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, pushed for the committee to vote it out, saying that court cases and increased costs of the death penalty since it was last debated demand it be considered again.

The closest Chambers came to having the law changed was in 1979, when his bill passed on a 26-22 vote but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charley Thone.

Twenty years later, he teamed with Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha, who tweaked Chambers' measure to instead call for a moratorium on executions while the Legislature studied whether the death penalty is fairly applied.

The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Johanns, but lawmakers went on with the study.

The last time a bill calling for the repeal of the death penalty made it to the floor was in 1992, but it was not debated.

A majority of state senators said before the current session they support the death penalty.

In a pre-session survey by The Associated Press, 29 senators said they support the death penalty. Six said capital punishment should be repealed. Nine were unsure or gave no answer and five, including Chambers, did not participate on the survey.

"That doesn't mean anything," Chambers said when presented with the figures. "Those questions are answered without a great amount of thought."

Thirty-eight states and the federal government have the death penalty.

Nebraska is the only state left that uses the electric chair as its sole means of execution.

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